It is no accident, I think, that the insides of houses—without the walls, without the carpets, without the bed frames and the tables and chairs—resemble what I imagine the inside of a human body looks like. The studs and the joists painted white like a skeletal structure, framing the house like bones do a body. PVC pipes for plumbing, pumping water throughout the rooms like a bloodstream; electrical wires snaking like vines through the joists: the central nervous system.
It is no accident, I think, that the insides of houses resemble human bodies because even after all the technological advances of the twenty-first century, houses are still built by human hands.
Before Hurricane Katrina, the house I worked on during my 2014 spring break was two houses, identical twins joined under the same roof: 1525 and 1527 Lesseps Street, New Orleans. When the levies broke and the Upper Ninth Ward flooded alongside most of the city, 1525 and 1527 Lesseps Street drowned together.
If 1525 Lesseps Street has been partially resurrected by the St. Bernard Project—the organization with which I have worked for three years now as part of Georgetown's Alternative Spring Break—then 1527 has been left to a curious fate. The two attached shotgun houses are being rebuilt, but into one home rather than two, meaning that when the construction is complete, 1527 Lesseps Street will join the great list of people and things lost to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.
I felt too aware of this profound sense of loss when I returned to New Orleans this March, driving into the city just after dusk, the rainbow lights of the Superdome marbling the purple night sky and the hot breeze, laced with salt and the sounds of jazz, blowing through the windows of our van.
But working in 1525 Lesseps Street for those four days—excavating a brick wall from behind a plaster cast, de-molding the framing with a questionable chemical, priming the studs—reminded me of something Rumi wrote once: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.”
The light in 1525 Lesseps Street was fifteen pairs of hands—mine; my participants’; those of our site supervisor, Ryan; the electricians’; Ryan’s boss from St. Bernard who brought donuts one morning. Before it is finished, 1525 Lesseps Street will see its fair share of hands enter through the still-broken door, hands to insulate the framing and to pin up the drywall and to paint and to furnish.
Implicit in Rumi’s statement, I think, is the understanding that in order for light to enter any wound, a great deal of faith is required. I never met the homeowners of 1525 Lesseps Street, but I think they must have an inordinate amount of faith to trust that so many strangers have been charged to rebuild their home by hand. Given the amount of loss that has already swept through this house, they have to trust that all of those hands won’t tear the wound further open than it already is. They have to trust that those hands will show the same care towards 1525 Lesseps Street that they themselves might.
It is not loss, I realize now, that has brought me back to New Orleans year after year, but faith: faith in the city, in its people. Faith that someday the rest of America will stop turning a blind eye to New Orleans. Faith that the memory of 1527 Lesseps Street, alongside the memories of the victims of Hurricane Katrina and the moments that the storm stole from them, will somehow live on in 1525 Lesseps Street and in the survivors of that August. Faith that this building project that I’m doing is, at its heart, a human project.